On Liberal Democracy and the Perpetual Crisis of Pluralism

by Elliot Milco


One of the primary problems of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on pluralism and the free exercise of religion, is learning how to play host to groups with fundamentally different viewpoints.  How does a society maintain a well-ordered public square without either biasing the rules of discourse and behavior to favor a particular positive stance, or banishing all metaphysical claims from public discourse and enforcing a purely negative secularism?

In the US, the difficulty of mediating conflicts between rival belief systems and cultural commitments has been ameliorated by two factors: first, by the predominately Christian character of  both the government and its underlying population—including immigrants; second, by American culture, which tends to infect immigrant populations soon after their arrival, dissolving cultural commitments and identities into the melting pot of economic pragmatism.  In Europe, where the native populations tend to have stronger national and cultural identities and immigrant populations tend to be less diverse, the process of naturalization is less automatic.  Immigrants tend to maintain their own subcultures as open alternatives to assimilation, because the cultural cost of assimilating is higher and the difficulty of sustaining a vibrant expatriate community lower.

In Europe, the problem of  democratic pluralism has taken on a new urgency in recent years, as the strident secularism of the French Fifth Republic comes into increasingly violent conflict with Islam. Even if this core problem of liberal democracy is less visible in America today than it is in France, it is no less real.  Part of living in an increasingly liberal and democratic world is dealing with an endless string of crises resulting from cultural shifts and the absorption of new populations.  It is a problem the American religious right is increasingly familiar with, as we come to terms with our defeat in the culture wars.

The Romans dealt with the problem of cultural assimilation by accommodating conquered peoples and integrating their local religions (in part) into the Roman Pantheon.  Roman paganism, like Persian paganism before it, offered a sort of quasi-universalism—everyone’s local deities were welcome, cultural practices were allowed to continue in the main, and the important civic rites of the conquerors were merely annexed to each local cult.  Where this universalism was hindered, the sword lubricated its progress with blood.

Modern liberal democrats, however, are mostly uncomfortable using the sword to solve the problems of cultural assimilation.  This is not to say that military force has not been used to settle ideological conflicts (one need only think of the Reign of Terror), but that the civic ideals of liberal democracy militate against this kind of solution.  And when one looks at the world of European philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century, a preoccupation with the development of discursive (as opposed to martial) solutions to the problem of pluralism is evident.  Why?

For most of the first two centuries of modern liberal democracy, the majority of these democracies were culturally homogeneous.  Ethnic divisions were primarily among European groups, with non-Europeans making up small, often disenfranchised, minorities.  Whatever their religious differences, Europeans (and groups grafted into the European tradition through colonization) share a common Christian moral outlook and a deeply-rooted Latin cultural heritage, both of which create a common ground which served as the foundation for political negotiation.  Political disputes within liberal democracies have, with a few major exceptions, dealt with fairly modest social and economic adjustments, rather than the fundamental re-invention of the political order.

This common ground is essential to the stability and survival of liberal regimes.  In America the ambient political culture encourages us to believe that the stability of our system of government is primarily a result of the excellence of the written constitution. But even supposing the stability of the United States was made possible by its constitution, it is important to realize that the constitution in its very nature is merely an instrument of popular political action: if it has worked, it has worked because conditions in society necessary to make it work have been present.  And if the cultural conditions for the stability of the constitutional regime are removed, the constitution will not be capable of sustaining itself.

In the 18th century David Hume outlined a vision of  constitutional government based on his desire to eliminate the problem of political instability that resulted from feuding political factions and crises of succession.  Hume’s ideas about procedural neutrality have formed the basis of modern liberal regimes: The state is organized not on specific conceptions of the good or beliefs about transcendent order, but around value-neutral mediating structures which provide a venue for rival factions and conflicting ideologies to work things out, or to exchange authority in periods of transition.  The principle that constitutional governments should be designed to accommodate conflicts and cultural instability is one of the founding principles of the American Republic, and is eloquently defended in the Federalist Papers.

Constitutional procedures are designed to function as a neutral framework which mediates political differences and allows for stable negotiation and transitions of power.  Logically, then, any constitutional regime will cease to function properly when the arrangement at the basis of the constitutional regime is somehow rejected by its member groups. This can happen in a number of ways, but I would like to consider two in particular.

If a given democratic regime survives long enough, an ancillary political culture will inevitably develop around it, based on the enshrinement of ideas related to its core institutions.  As populations migrate in and out of a given territory, the common ground shared by all factions of a given democracy will necessarily become thinner, in order to accommodate the cultural compromises required for common participation in republican government.  But as the consensus uniting the various factions thins, the one element being reinforced necessarily and across the board, to guarantee the stability of the liberal constitutional arrangement, is commitment to liberal democratic procedures.  These procedures gradually cease to be thought of as practical mechanisms for the mediation of political differences, and are transformed into abstract moral principles: the constitutional preference against an established church becomes a principle upholding the secularity of the public sphere; the constitutional need to allow rival factions to exercise political functions is transformed into a doctrine of universal toleration, and so on.  This is not to say that these ideas are spontaneously invented by the population, but that through the cultivation of civic piety and the development of a strong tradition of liberal government, they will tend to become more compelling to the population and more widely adopted.  What is important here is the transformation of non-propositional procedural mechanisms into value-laden moral claims: What began as a neutral playing field begins to become the property of a particular ideological faction.

As the ideology of liberalism develops, the proponents of this ideology cease to see themselves as subscribing to an ideology—after all, the thing they support is nothing other than the neutral middle ground, the very foundation of democratic compromise.  Soon every faction other than the liberal faction is identified as being anti-liberal, precisely because they have interests and beliefs distinct from liberal neutrality, which they want to bring to the constitutional bargaining table.  And the more dominant the liberal ideology becomes, the more easily the neutral procedures of constitutional government are co-opted by the liberal faction, so that the interpretation of constitutional provisions is adjusted to allow the exclusion of dissent from the public sphere.  What is most bizarre about the resulting situation is that, in effect, the constitutional regime will have collapsed (after all, it no longer performs its mediating function), but it is not acknowledged as having collapsed, because the people who have destroyed it see themselves as its perfect proponents, and all its central traditional elements are preserved intact.

Non-liberals in liberal democracies today are faced with a scenario increasingly similar to the one just described.  They may try to push back the rising tide of liberal ideology, and reclaim the procedural neutrality promised to them by the constitutional arrangement, but it’s a losing battle, and this is clear for two reasons.  First, and most simply, because the conflation of liberal procedural commitments and liberal ideology is too easy, and in any stable democratic society the population will be primed to shift from one to the other without much mental effort.  Second, because liberals are ceasing to be willing to cooperate within a constitutional framework with people who do not share their convictions.  Those who refuse to buy into liberal ideology lack sufficient political common ground for their participation in government to be allowed, and even if they are not forcibly excluded, compromise and political negotiation become more and more difficult to accomplish.

The liberal endgame teaches us an important lesson—one many who stand outside the liberal ideological consensus in America have long refused to accept.  The survival of a liberal democratic regime, and its flourishing, cannot hang primarily on the integrity of its constitutional procedures or neutral mediating structures.  The idea of creating a government with procedural institutions designed to withstand cultural turmoil and regime change is admirable, and I think extremely useful in the contemporary world, with its gigantic states and massive populations.  But Hume’s proceduralism, which makes neutrality the core principle of the regime, is not only insufficient to stabilize liberal regimes, but ultimately inimical to their stability.  Liberal democracies, republics of the American sort, stand or fall on account of the integrity and stability of the culture of the underlying population, their commitment to a common understanding of the good, and their disposition toward the divine.

This post originally appeared at The Paraphasic.